Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Comparative Literature

Most colleges have a comparative literature program, which typically allows young people to spend lots of their parents’ hard-earned money and plenty of Pell Grant taxpayer largesse to read obscure authors in tandem with the deep thoughts of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and similar literary parlor-trick artists. You can learn something in such programs – like how to bore the crap out of someone at a cocktail party. But it’s usually not a productive venture, no matter how much you spend on tuition, and it’s often a ticket to a post-grad barista gig.

Despite those caveats, I was thinking about the value of comparing ideas from different realms because of two books I’m currently reading. The first is a book I’ve been meaning to get to for some time now, Lawrence Wright’s “The Looming Tower,” which provides a valuable and readable history of the origins of Al-Qaeda by detailing the careers of Osama bin Laden, Zayman al-Zawahiri and the various blackguards and henchmen that are part of the Al-Qaeda orbit. At the same time, I have been re-reading one of my favorite novels, William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” I have put “Lord of the Flies” on my 11-year old son’s summer reading list and I wanted to refresh myself with it before he starts into the book. I have long believed that “Lord of the Flies” is one of the best parables of modern life that you could find and in re-reading it, I remain convinced of it. I think every boy should read this book, because the story explains, in ways better than I am capable, the principal problem of civilization. That is, how do you control the impulses of young men?

As I look at “The Looming Tower,” I am struck by how much the problem in the Middle East, and in Islam generally, is really not that exotic at all, despite the barbarism that has marked the Islamist movement. The problem in so many of the places is pretty simple – you have a lot of young men who have directionless lives, filled with boredom and arbitrary rules. Poverty is not the problem; as has been consistently demonstrated, some of the worst of the Al-Qaeda operatives have been scions of the middle and upper classes in their respective countries. What has happened is that the Salafist strain of Islam, combined with the notion of takfir, have been combined in a way that essentially allows these folks to take whatever action they need to accomplish their goal, even if that means killing thousands of innocent people, often in the most barbaric ways. Al-Qaeda gives these directionless youths something to believe in, and something that is especially powerful since it gives them dominion over others. It becomes pretty easy to see the similarities between Jack Merridew and bin Laden, to say nothing of the similarities between Piggy and, say, the modern Democratic Party.

I commend both books to your attention. If you’d like another book that would also make a good companion to this topic, try Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer.”

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I read The Looming Tower several months ago. It reminded me of growing up in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, albeit without the Packers, beer, cheese or venison sausage. It did powerfully illustrate that there are very serious questions that have to be raised about Dubyah's purported theory that we are going to create a democratic paradise in the Middle East when you have these charming people running around. As in the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, they do not want to be free.

Anonymous Truck Driver

Mark said...

I understand the WELS comparison, ATD, but I don't remember any WELS members flying planes into the World Trade Center. They weren't very nice when they came play us at Xavier High School, but it was okay because the stout Catholic boys who represented ol' alma mater generally kicked their tails. The WELS people, that is. Don't know what would have happened if Mohammed Atta had been playing point guard for Fox Valley Lutheran.

You may be on to something, though - maybe if we took Al-Qaeda to Lambeau some time and got them liquored up on brandy old fashioneds and fed 'em a few well-prepared Johnsonville brats, we might be able to turn their thinking around a little bit.

One other thing I would say - I don't recall W saying we would create a democratic paradise in the Middle East. I also recall various members of his administration saying this would be a long, tough, slog. And so it is, of course - we've been fighting this war in varying degrees since the sixth century.

Anonymous said...

It is true that WELS members generally do not exhibit the homicidal impulse of our friends in the Middle East. Garrison Keillor once presented an apt analysis of the main peril when he described a Lutheran man who, deeply resentful of how his strict upbringing had made him so inhibited and emotionally stilted, resolved to post his own private 95 Theses on the door of the Lutheran Church, only to decide, once he arrived at the door, that he should not put a pin hole in the door, but rather should tape his missive.

WELS is not the worst example in America, but it was my personal window into a mind set in which followers are taught that they have the one true faith, that all others are eternally damned and should be shunned if they will not convert, and that the world of science and knowledge and modernity in general imperil the true believer. This was the same mind set detailed in The Looming Tower, only the players in that drama seem to find themselves in the singularly awkward position of taking it upon themselves to devise methods of returning human society to the 14th century. I would prefer that we send them to hell.

Perhaps my memory is faulty, but I seem to recall that Donald Rumsfeld did not acknowledge the "long, tough slog" until this point had been vividly illustrated to the public for a considerable time but to that point unacknowledged by the Bush Administration. Most truths are not acknowledged by the Bush Administration until until well after it has become apparent to everyone else.

I recall the pre-war prediction that "we will be welcomed as liberators," have read the books which strongly suggest that Rumsfeld, Cheney and Junior badly underestimated how difficult it would be and what resources would be needed, particularly during the period after Hussein was taken out of power, and recall that one of the main "middle period" justifications for the Iraq War was that we will bring "freedom" to that country (this after the pre-war claim that Iraq was an imminent threat to America had been thoroughly debunked, such that a new justification had to be proferred to set up a defense to how the intelligence, and the American people, had been brazenly manipulated). Unfortunately, American style freedom takes more than majority rule. It takes adherence to principles of constitutional limitations upon majority rule and government power, which hold little interest for either the Iraqi people or, apparently, the Bush Administration. Ironically, the majority rule that we bring to Iraq may well make that country a close ally of Iran, which probably is an imminent threat to America, but which we may not now have the resources to confront.

Speaking of manipulation of the American people, I have personal acquaintance with people, coincidentally WELS members, who continue to maintain that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, and suspect that this condition, reportedly shared by as many as 40% of the American people, is the product of the constant references by Bush and his friends at Fox News and on talk radio to 9/11 whenever the Iraq War is justified/mentioned. Of course, all of this is done with plausible deniability ("I never said that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11").

I have also read extensively of how the neocons were advocating violent overthrow of Hussein in the late 1990's, and that the evidence strongly suggests that the rhetoric linking the 9/11 tragedy with Iraq evidenced a conscious strategy of exploiting 9/11 by a group of idealogues intent on conducting their grand experiment in Iraq through the sacrifice of the young men and women who serve in our military (engaging in an activity which the neocon idealogues themselves scrupuously avoided when they had their chance, because that is something for the "little people" who don't have "other priorities"). I prefer the days when mendacity was concerned with an improper sexual dalliance in the Oval Office, in that over 3,000 Americans did not die over those lies. I think the purported leaders who refer to critics of the Iraq War as advocates of "cut and run" from the terrorists are despicable, but also recognize the point that regardless of how it was we ended up there (i.e., being lied to repeatedly), we now have to determine if we can find a responsible solution (Powell's "you break it, you fix it"). I don't know what that is, but I do know that if I had a child who was walking around with a target on their back in Iraq, I would not be terribly concerned with salvaging Bush's legacy by pulling out a "victory" in Iraq, whatever that would be at this point.

And, like Forrest Gump, that's all I am going to say about that.

Anonymous Truck Driver

Mark said...

Well, ATD, that's a pretty good synopsis of every talking point I've heard over the past 4-5 years on the subject. And with a lot less spittle on the screen then you often see with such synopses, so I do want you to know I appreciate your measured tone.

Not surprisingly, I do see it a little differently. The recriminations are always a lot of fun to recount, but in the end, we are faced with the more important question, which is: what do we do now? We're going to need better answers from both political parties than we've received up to this point.

And one last thing I'd say: I don't really care about W's legacy, either. Neither you nor I will be the ones who end up describing it. It's worth remembering that Harry Truman was hated when he left office, while Calvin Coolidge was hugely admired. It's a significantly more complicated question today for both of these men. And no, I'm not saying W is Truman. But it's going to look a lot different some day.

I'm glad you're posting this stuff, though, ATD. Mr. D appreciates your challenges.

Anonymous said...

I get a little emotional on this subject, but I don't think these are just talking points I picked up from liberal polemicists. I agree that we need to figure out what we do now, and that I don't have the answer, and that it probably does not profit one to focus excessively on the past, but like Lucinda Williams, I can't let go. I just recall when the build up for Iraq was taking place, I followed everything Bush said, I watched Powell before the U.N., and outraged over 9/11 and feeling that the country had to pull together and support the president in a time of crisis, I decided to trust them, though even then I could not see how a secular despot like Saddam Hussein would have had anything to do with the religious fanatics of Al-Queda, and was uncertain as to what this was going to accomplish in the way of going after the people who were out to destroy America (that are described so well in The Looming Tower). I thought at the time that there had to be some things they knew but could not tell us that was prompting them to focus so intently on Iraq when Bin Laden and the boys were in Pakistan. After the fact, there has been a stream of well documented evidence, including a lot from former insiders in the Bush Administration, that from literally day one of the Bush Administration there was an inordinate fixation on Iraq, and that after 9/11, they did not go to U.S. intelligence agencies to obtain accurate information to ensure the wisdom of future actions, but went to intelligence demanding that justifications be found to support the decisions that had already been made, and then made repeated misleading statements to the American people by cherry picking the raw intelligence that was being provided to them by intelligence personnel who were being told to at all costs find something we can pin on Iraq. If Iraq turns around and becomes a bastion of freedom in the Middle East that leads to a domino effect where the chips fall our way, I suppose Bush will appear to be a genius, but I am outraged that the American people were led into a war that is very costly, in terms of lives, money and international prestige, while Bin Laden keeps sending his love letters to the world from his cave, straight from the heart. I know Bush can make his disingenous points about Al-Qaeda now having operations in Iraq, and I suppose we can all derive satisfaction whenever we manage to kill some of them off there, but I tend to think that our presence there is going to create new Al-Qaeda members faster than we can kill them, and that there is no way America is going to impose peace and respect for democratic institutions on these people or that our soldiers are ever going to be viewed as anything more than targets to a vast number of the locals. I hope I'm wrong.

Anonymous Truck Driver

Mark said...

Yeah, I hear you, ATD, but you have to let some of this stuff go. You also need to use paragraph breaks. :)

The talking points thing is probably a cheap shot - I apologize for it because I'm certain your views are heartfelt and I'm not going to try to dissuade you from your views. I'm also not even going to try to tell you that you shouldn't feel whatever emotions you feel. That's your deal, good sir, and you are entitled to it. The only problem is that I've heard all of those arguments before in other places. That's not your fault, but it tends to color my reactions.

As for now, the sense I'm getting is that the people doing most of the attacking in Iraq are either Al-Qaeda or Al-Qaeda wannabes and that most of the fighters are from Jordan, Egypt, Yemen and other such lovely destinations. There's really not a lot of evidence right now that native Iraqis are doing much fighting against U.S. forces. In Anbar province, there's plenty of evidence that the locals are turning on the fighters in their midst. We are now six years on from 9/11 and we have seen a horrible, nasty war. We are dealing with an implacable yet cowardly enemy. The battle for now is in Iraq. It may move elsewhere eventually; my suspicion is that it will move elsewhere.

But it will continue, because of Bin Laden, but more importantly because of Bashir Assad, Hosni Mubarak, the Saudi sheiks and the other tyrants scattered across that part of the world. You're wise enough to understand that we can't simply pull out of Iraq; you haven't suggested that at any point, which makes you more credible on the issue than most of the Democratic candidates for president. But you have to remember that no matter what you think of W and Evil Dick, they will be gone in 2009. Someone else will have to take up the cudgels. Because I take Bin Laden and the other Islamists seriously, I have to assume they won't simply declare victory and leave us alone if we leave.

cialis said...
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